Thursday, July 31, 2014

Porthouse's OLIVER doesn't get standiing ovation

I had one of my greatest experiences in the theatre when, on June 30, 1960, I attended the opening of “Oliver!” at the New Theatre in London, England.  I was seated 3rd row center! 

Peter Coe’s direction, Malcolm Clare’s choreography, and a cast consisting of Ron Moody (Fagin) Georgia Brown (Nancy) and Davy Jones (Artful Dodger) brought Lionel Bart’s music, lyrics and book to life.  Based on Charles Dickens tale of Oliver Twist, a tale of a child left at a London orphanage, the premiere got seventeen screaming standing ovations.  The show ran for close to 3000 performances and was transferred to Broadway where it had another successful run.  Interestingly, the Big Apple production featured sets built in London, shipped to the US by sea, complete with the actual brick wall London mural that I had seen in the British edition.

On the surface, “Oliver!” is the musical adaptation of the Dickens tale of a boy whose mother died in childbirth, was brought up in an orphanage, is sold to be an undertaker’s casket follower after he has the nerve to ask for more food.  He runs away from his employer, hooks up with a gang of boys who are trained to be pickpockets by Fagin, their elderly mentor, is caught by the police, befriended by a wealthy man who turns out to be his grandfather, and lives happily ever after.

In reality, as were many of Dicken’s stories, the tale was written as an attack on the English social welfare system of the day.  It is credited with having been the catalyst for the change of the orphanage houses of horrors.

Bart’s memorable score includes:  “Food, Glorious Food,” in which the mistreatment of the orphans is revealed;” “Oliver,” which introduces the audience to adorable scamp who won’t follow directions, and during its reprise later in the play reveals that Oliver will be loved and cared for; “Boy for Sale,” when Oliver is sold to a funeral director; “Where Is Love,” in which Oliver pleads for someone to show him some compassion; “Pick A Pocket or Two,” where Fagin teaches Oliver the skills of stealing; “My Name” introduces the fierce Bill Sykes, whose existence will have a profound effect on Oliver;  and “Reviewing the Situation,” in which Fagin evaluates his life and the aging process.  

Audiences at Porthouse Theatre are generous in their ovations.  They tend to stand and enthusiastically applaud at the conclusions of all the shows, well-earned, or not.  This season, “My Fair Lady” got a deserved ovation and “Starmights” (undeserved) also was met with standing bodies.  Meanwhile, “Oliver,” the theatre’s latest offering, concluded with very few standees the night I saw the show.

Why did “Oliver!” get a less than triumphant reception?  The reasons are numerous.  Among them was that, as a whole, the show’s pacing lacked the emotional power needed to sustain both the oppression and glee the tale requires.  This may have been caused by the script being haphazardly adapted.  The usual two and a half hour show was cut to less than two hours.  Some of the adjustments caused awkward bridging of scenes, breaking the story’s flow.

There were some questionable casting choices.  Though he has an impressive singing voice, Brian Keith Johnson’s beautiful tones did not fit the menacing sounds needed to create the evil Bill Sykes, nor did his smooth, underplayed oral spoken delivery.  Though she put out full effort, Cameron Nelson was too old and lacked the charisma and “cutesy” aura to portray Oliver.  Miriam Henkel-Moellmann has a marvelous singing voice, and her “As Long as He Needs Me,” was well sung, but she was both too young and was too orally and physically scrubbed clean to portray the warm-hearted prostitute, Nancy.  Patrick Kennedy, dressed in a costume that made him look like an oversized elder man, had some of the right qualities for Dodger, including a nice singing voice, but failed to add the delightful nature of the kid thief. 

On the positive side, Eric van Baars created an acceptable Fagin, though I would have preferred a little more eye-twinkling scheming and playfulness.  Lissy Gulick was delightful as Widow Corney.  MaryAnn Black’s choreography was well conceived, but many of the youngsters were just not comfortable enough to carry it off, often looking like puppets, rather than real live boys.  Nolan C. O’Dell’s multi-level stage set, with a small turntable to make for easy set moves worked moderately well.  Jonathan Swoboda’s well-tuned orchestra nicely supported the singers, rather than drowning them out.  “Oom-Pah-Pah” was a nicely conceived production number which added much needed joy.  “I Shall Scream” also added a nice comic dimension.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: “Oliver!” is a wonderful musical theatre script which tells a well conceived tale, has marvelous music, and, in a good production, pleases an audience.  Unfortunately, Porthouse’s version left much to be desired.

For tickets
 or 330-929-4416 or 330-672-3884

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Reimagined "Midsummer Night's Dream" a controversial production at Stratford

The topic at the breakfast table of the wonderful Avery House B and B table is always filled with opinions about what the guests have seen at the Stratford Festival. 

A number of people had viewed “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”  The conversations got animated when that play’s title was brought up.  On the positive side, it was generally agreed that the play was fun-filled.  On the other hand, a number of people thought the reimagining of the start of the production farce did little to enhance the already delightful script.  In fact, some people expressed the view that all of “the added stuff” took away from the delight. The latter view was strongly presented by a group who dubbed themselves, “Shakespeare purists.”  They like their Shakespeare as The Bard wrote it, without any “creative game playing,” as one person stated.

Just for the record, I am not a “purist.”  I tend to believe that some of the Bard’s, works, can be enhanced, made more appropriate to an era, by changing the setting, using modern rather than Elizabethan-era language, and blending costume styles to universalize the ideas. 

I also strongly believe, however, that when a director decides to bastardize what was originally perceived, s/he needs to have a clear idea of why the changes are being made, should be sure that those concepts become clear to the audience, and are carried through with fidelity.  

In the case of the “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” Stratford production, I don’t believe that director  Chris Abraham carried out those requirements as well as he was obligated to do.

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is one of Shakespeare’s most delightful comedies.  Filled with fantasy, romance, and farcical situations, the story centers four Athenian lovers and group of amateur actors who become controlled and manipulate by a group of fairies who inhabit the forest in which most of the play takes place.  But,  the script does, as is true with all of The Bard’s comedies, have some theme messages.  In this case The Bard of Avon dealt with the role of such concepts as the aristocracy, sexuality, loss of individual identity, feminism, and the cultural patterns of early modern England. 

The delightful romp centers on the tale of Theseus, the Duke of Athens, who is about to get married Hippolyta, the Queen of the Amazons.  A member of the Duke’s court wants his daughter, Hermia, to marry Demetrius, but she is in love with Lysander.  The Duke commands Hermia to marry her father’s choice or become a nun.  Of course, Hermia and Lysander ignore the dictate and run away.  They get lost in the woods, where Oberon, the king of the fairies reigns.  Oberon’s attempt to straighten things out results in a series of bumbles made by Puck, Oberon’s mischievous servant, who mixes up potions to that are to be dispersed.  Puck gives them to the wrong persons, with disastourous results.  The mismatched people fall in and out of love, a human becomes a donkey, and misidentifications take place.  The romp climaxes as a group of really bad performers present a play at Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding.  Eventually, all is well that ends well. 

The director  has taken many liberties with the script.  As the audience files in, there is an air of general chaos on the stage.  Actors were flooding into the audience, the children who were later to play fairies, ran around and up and down the aisles.  Eventually we were exposed to the fact that we were attending a gay interracial marriage.  Eventually the grooms were dispatched to be seated in the audience for the rest of the play.   Why they were included in the activities was unclear.  What was the role of the couple beyond being window dressing.  After their initial appearance, they never did become a meaningful part of the on-going play.

Abraham also incorporated a deaf character.  Nothing wrong with that, but the short and inconsistent use of sign language during the start of the play, never to be used again, appears to be a gimmick for the sake of adding a gimmick.

The director explains his devices as his attempt to “forge a sense of family and community as central to the play’s setting, and for this community to be inclusive, varied and diverse.”  If this is his goal, then why weren’t his additions incorporated completely into the body of the presentation, but tacked on as stage dressing?  Where does his “community” fit into the community of the play?

As for the rest of the production.  As should be expected with this script, humor reigned supreme.  The pacing was good, the action flowed right along, the farcical scenes were well developed, most of the characterizations worked well. 

The use of children as fairies could have worked if the children’s line and movements were more fully developed. Were the kids cute?  Yes.  Were their addition an effective addition to the production?  Doubtful.

Stephen Ouimette was delightful as Nick Bottom, who is transformed into the donkey.  Karl Ang (Snug), Lally Cadeaum (Quince), Keith Dincol (Snout), Victor Ertmanis (Flute) and Brad Hodder (Starveling) were perfect comic foils as the fools that put on the play for the Duke. 

Chick Reid disappointed as Puck, Oberon’s jester.  Not only was she difficult to hear but she lacked the necessary impish quality.

The song inclusions, special effects, lighting, set design and costumes all added to the quality of the production.

Capsule judgement: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is one of Shakespeare’s most delightful comedies.  Though the comic qualities were high, the Stratford production was filled with needless gimmicks and additions which added nothing to enhancing the basic script.  As evidenced by our B&B table discussion, audiences are going to love or hate this production.   

For individual tickets call 800-567-1600 or go on-line to

"King Lear" rants, raves and compels at Stratford

Lightning flashes, thunder booms, fog pours forth, the rain descends in torrents, the smell of dampness and despair are present as Colm Feore, as King Lear, rants against the elements and humankind in the Stratford Festivals powerful and unnerving “King Lear.”

The role of Lear is one of the most coveted in theatrical history.  The script has been rewritten several times, but one thing remains clear.  The lead role is one of the most difficult, yet compelling characters ever written.   He is a Shakespearean  tragic character, “a man of noble stature who has outstanding qualities of greatness about him, but is destroyed because of a desire to accomplish a cause or standup for a principle.”

In Lear’s case, he is a man unwilling to face death.  He is forced to eventually realize his finitude when Cordelia, his youngest daughter, dies.  Psychiatrist Sigmund Freud said of the scene when the Lear carries his dead daughter onto the stage, her body causes him “to make friends with the necessity of dying.”  And, with this, Lear’s desire to skirt death psychologically destroys him, and his cause is lost.

The story concerns an aging king of Britain, who decides to abandon the throne and divide his kingdom evenly among his three daughters.  Lear’s daughters must, however, tell him how much they love him.  Goneril and Regan, the eldest, flatter their father.  The youngest, Cordelia, recounts that she has no words to describe her love.  Lear, assuming that his favorite daughter does not return his affection, rejects her, cutting her off from her entitled land.  Without a dowry, her prospects for obtaining a royal husband disappear.  Or so Lear thinks.  In fact, the King of France still desires her.  They wed and flee to France without Lear’s blessing.

Lear’s quick decision soon turns wrong as the daughters to whom he gave his land and powers, betray him.  As we observe, he descends into depression.   

Questions arise. What would cause a man to reject and ban his favorite daughter because she refuses to tell him why he is so wonderful, while he divides his estate between his two manipulative and false daughters ?  Is Lear psychologically insane or a victim of physical dementia?  Should the man be rejected or pitied?  Is he a tyrant or a pathetic soul?

Gloucester, a loyal nobleman, realizes what is happening and befriends Lear.  To get back at him, he is blinded by Regan and her dastardly husband.  Wandering in the heath, his son Edgar saves the blind Gloucester from falling off a cliff and is taken to Dover, where Lear has also been brought.  Cordelia, hearing of the plight of her father, brings French troops to help regain Lear’s power.  She is defeated, put in prison and is executed.  Lear, distraught, dies out of grief in an emotionally wrenching scene.

This is the stuff of which great Shakespearean plays are made.

“King Lear,” under the definitive direction of Antoni Cimolino, is superb.  Every aspect of the production works.  The set design, the lighting and sound, the special effects, the costuming, all advance the story. 

There is not a single chink in the acting armor.  Feore traverses the ladder of emotions with ease.  The element underscored soliloquy is so effective that the audience literally gave a collective sigh of relief and a resounding roar of applause when it was completed.

Maev Beaty and Lisa Repo-Martell were properly obnoxious as Lear’s older daughters, while  Sara Farb was charming and appealing as Cordelia, the youngest daughter.  Scott Wentworth was excellent as Gloucester.  The scene in which he was blinded was wrenching.

Capsule judgement: Stratford’s “King Lear” is a must see production.  Every aspect of the staging works.  This is a presentation that teaches the audience what superb theatre is all about. 

For individual tickets call 800-567-1600 or go on-line to

"Crazy for You," a delightful old-fashioned escapist musical at the Stratford Festival

What does someone do when they are given the opportunity to obtain the rights to 400 George and Ira Gershwin songs?  If you are Roger Horchow, who, at age six, heard George Gershwin play the piano at his house, you hire creative Ken Ludwig, the author of such shows as  “Lend Me A Tenor,” to write a funny story and incorporate into it eighteen songs from nine shows that were produced between 1918 and 1937.

“Crazy for You,” a version of which is being staged at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada, is the show that resulted from the Ludwig-Gershwin collaboration.  There are the witty lyrics of Ira Gershwin and the varied musical sounds of George Gershwin, including blues, ragtime, jazz and western, and Ludwig’s outrageous script. 

It is a typical 1930s song and dance show with a slight farcical plot, with no moral or message.  It contains romance, mistaken identity, farcical situations, slapstick, and sexual innuendoes.
If you didn’t know better you’d perceive “the new Gershwin musical” as written in the pre-depression era.  Not, so.  It’s a creation that won the 1992 Tony Award for Best Musical.

The original Broadway production ran for 1,622 performances.  The highlight of the staging was Susan Stroman’s tap-dancing production numbers and director Mike Ockrent’s farcical staging.

The story line concerns Bobby Child, the rich son of a banker, who has a yen to be a musical theatre star.  He wants to appear in the Zangler Follies (think the Ziegfeld Follies), but Bela Zangler won’t give him a break.  Bobbie is sent by his family’s bank to foreclose on a theatre in the old west.  He, of course, falls in love with Polly, the local postmistress, whose mother used to be the star performer at the theatre.  Of course, Polly has song and dance talents.  They decide to put on a show to save the theatre.  (Yes, it’s Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland set in the old west.) 

There has to be a plot twist or two, so Billy’s wealthy fiancée follows him to Deadrock, Nevada. Bobby has the dancers from the follies, who together with a bunch of cowboys, become the theatre’s singing and dancing chorus, Bela finds out and comes to claim his beauties, and . . .. 

More explanation of the plot is possible, but this isn’t a “who done it” with a surprise ending.  We know how the whole thing comes out after the first ten minutes of the play.  Boy meets girl, boy gets girl, another boy gets another girl, the theatre is saved and Bobby and Polly become stars.  Curtain!

Some of the songs that flow from the stage are, “Bidin’ My Time,” ”Shall We Dance?”, “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “Embraceable You,” ”They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” and “Nice Work If You Can Get It.”  Highlight production numbers are “I Got Rhythm” and “What Causes That?.”

Creatively directed and choreographed by Donna Feore, “Crazy for You” is a total delight.  She has a nice touch in staging the ridiculous.  A scene of two drunks having a fight in a bar is one of the funniest routines every staged.  The shticks, gimmicks and exaggerations all work.  Ridiculousness runs rampant, to the delight of the audience.

Adorable Natalie Daradich creates a Polly who is emotionally accessible, sings and dances well, and sparkles on stage.  Josh Franklin has matinee idol good looks, a fine singing voice, and a nice touch with comedy.  Tom Rooney is properly ridiculous as Bella Zangler.  The folly girls and the cowboys are well trained in dance and sing with gusto. 

The sets work well, the costumes are era correct and the orchestra is pitch perfect.

Capsule judgement:  “Crazy For You” is a total delight.  Anyone who loves the fun and ridiculousness of an old time musical, complete with a marvelous George and Ira Gershwin score, will have a wonderful time attending this Stratford production.
For individual tickets call 800-567-1600 or go on-line to

"Man of La Mancha" vividly envisions the quest for the impossible dream

What motivates someone to endanger himself in to march into hell to accomplish an impossible dream?  What inspires someone to fight the impossible foe?  Why do some people see the best in others, ignoring their scabs, their sores, and their obvious flaws?  Is it a person who is insane, a dreamer, or a fool who sees the world through different eyes than the rest of society?

Dale Wasserman’s book, Joe Darion’s lyrics, and Mitch Leigh’s music, which form the basis for “Man of La Mancha,” pose these questions.  Answers aren’t presented, but a gauntlet is thrown down for those who view a production of the masterfully developed musical to answer those questions for themselves, and in the process, even be inspired to become a Don Quixote.  To become a dreamer with a cause, who follows the creed, “My destiny calls and I go, And the wild winds of fortune , Will carry me onward,  Oh whithersoever they blow. Onward to glory I go!”

The multi-award winning “Man of La Mancha,” which was adapted from Wasserman’s non-musical 1959 teleplay, “I, Don Quixote” was inspired by Miguel de Cervantes’ seventeenth century “Don Quixote,” is now on stage at the Stratford Festival. 

It tells the tale of a “mad” knight, Don Quixote, a creative writer and poet, who in a play within a play, tells the tale of Miguel de Cervantes, failed author/soldier/tax collector and Sancho, his manservant, waiting for their hearing before a tribunal set up during the Spanish inquisition to try “criminals” for crimes supposedly committed against the church.  As the tale unfolds, his fellow prisoners want to destroy a manuscript that tells the tale of Don Quixote, a dreamer/do-gooder.  Cervantes agrees to be put on trial to protect his manuscript.  He involves the prisoners in the tale telling.

With the aid of a makeup kit and items contained in a trunk, he is transformed into Don Quixote, a man who believes himself to be a chivalrous knight, who fights dragons (a windmill), sees a castle (a rundown roadside inn), regards a prostitute to be a virginal saint of purity, and fights battles to correct wrongs.  As he finishes his tale, he is taken out of the dungeon to face his real accusers.

The score is glorious and includes the humorous “I’m Only Thinking of Him” and “I Like Him,” the poignant “Dulcinea,” the probing “What Does He Want of Me?,” the compelling “Knight of the Mirrors, and the inspiring “The Impossible Dream,” one of the greatest songs ever written for the American musical stage.

The original Broadway production opened in 1965, ran 2,328 performances and won five Tony Awards, including Best Musical. Richard Kiley won a Tony for his performance of Cervantes/Quixote.  Clevelander Joan Diener won accolades as Aldonza.

The script has been revived four times on Broadway and has had numerous local theatre productions.

The Stratford production, under the razor sharp direction of Robert McQueen is excellent.  The multi-leveled set design, with the over-arching large windmill, the center focus of Quixote’s quest, helps create the right mood for the fantasy.  The well-played music supports rather than over-powers the singers.   The sound system allows for a clear understanding of the spoken and sung dialogue.

Tom Rooney is superb as Cervantes/Quixote/Quijana.  His singing voice is strong.  He creates clear images with the lyrics by singing ideas, not just words.  His acting creates a believable image of a man possessed by desire, leaving open the option of whether he is sane or a madman. 

Robin Hutton’s characterization of Aldonza clearly displays a woman whose life has been a living hell, highlighted by being a victim of rape, abandonment and abuse.  Her singing voice is excellent.   Her interpretation of “What Does He Want of Me?” is heart wrenching.

Steve Ross plays the role of Sancho as a quiet follower, rather than a delightful bumbler.  Though acceptable, he misses out some of the humor that Wasserman inserted to lightened the script’s intensity.

Though a little too clean cut looking to be treacherous criminals, the chorus universally develops clear characterizations.

Capsule judgement:  Stratford’s “Man of La Mancha” is an exceptionally well-conceived and performed production of one of the American musical theatre’s great scripts.  Short of having seen the original Broadway production (which was breathtakingly effective), a viewing of this staging is a wonderful second place and makes for an unforgettable theatrical experience!  Applause, applause, applause! 

For individual tickets call 800-567-1600 or go on-line to

Impressive "King John" reigns at Stratford

King John, who reigned as the monarch of England from 1199-1216, was the son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and the father of Henry III.   The Shakespearean script concerning his reign is one of the true history plays by the Bard and is one of only two of his plays, the other being “Richard II,” that are written entirely in script. 

“King John” is one of the Bard’s cannon that does not get produced very often.  Maybe it’s because there is no horror in the play, or not as much as in many Shakespearean works  John also is not quite as dramatically psychotic as Lady Macbeth, Othello, or King Lear.  He is not the type of character who issues a long Hamlet-like soliloquy to ponder power, relationships and angst.  He is not love driven as Romeo.  He is not as delightful as the characters in “Midsummer Nights Dream” or “The Taming of the Shrew.”

Shakespeare’s John is “simple, not given to reflection, and doesn’t agonize over decisions.”  He “comes across as ambitious, arrogant, and lacking in foresight.” 

This is basically a history recounting play that, in a good production, grabs and holds attention with good writing and an interesting, but not spectacular tale.  Stratford’s staging does exactly that!

John was the youngest of five brothers.  According to the law of succession, he was not in line to gain the throne, but he outlived all of his brothers, including Richard the Lionhearted. He was considered a weak king because of his willingness to give concessions to King Phillip II of France and compromised in other ways, as well as his lack of personal magnetism, but reigned for seventeen years.  Writing a play about him does not allow for the blood and guts and hysteria afforded other Shakespeare monarchs. 

John is most remembered for his conflict with the Pope, brought about because he would not faithfully follow the orders of Cardinal Pandulph, the Pope’s legate and his signing of the Magna Carta.  The former is dealt with in the script, the latter is not.  

At the end of the play, in saying his final goodbyes to his son and the few noblemen still loyal to him, King John sums up his essence when he states,  “I am  scribbled form, drawn with a pen/Upon a parchment.”

The play’s plot develops as a messenger from France arrives in the English court, demanding that King John abdicate his throne in favor of his nephew, Arthur. The messenger speaks for King Philip of France, who supports Arthur's claim as the rightful heir to the throne.  When John refuses to step down, France threatens war.

Through many twists and turns, the plot weaves a tale.  There are attacks on the English-held town of Angers.  There is a confrontation with Pandolf, an ambassador from the Pope who excommunicates John when the King refuses to accept the Pope’s posting of an archbishop.  There are attempts to overthrow John.  There is the tale of Arthur, the heir apparent who is supposedly killed by one of the King’s nobles, but, in fact, the boy is released, only to die when he falls or get pushed off a bridge.  John and Pandolf resolve their differences, only to have John poisoned by a monk at a monastery, where he had been awaiting reports from the battlefield.  John dies. The lords swear allegiance to John’s son, Prince Henry.  Blackout.

The play is long, but the Stratford production, under the direction of Tim Carroll,  is well staged, well paced, and intriguing.  The costumes, staging, impressionistic sets and clear language interpretation all add up to a fine experience.  The stage, which is a runway thrust, allows for a close relationship between the audience and the cast.  This is the type of script which gains from such a relationship. 

Tom McCamus develops King John as a realistic person.  He underplays rather than ranting, thus living rather than acting the role.  Graham Abbey nicely creates Philip, The Bastard, as a multi-dimensional character.  Brian Tree is properly uptight as Cardinal Pandulph.   Seana McKenna as Constance, mother of Arthur, and Patricia Collins as Queen Eleanor, mother to King John, both are regally correct.

Capsule judgement:   Stratford’s “King John” is an impressive and compelling production.  This is not one of Shakespeare’s blood and guts plays but grabs and holds the audience with language rather than action.  Since the script is not often done, this is an excellent opportunity to gain exposure by seeing a fine performance.

For individual tickets call 800-567-1600 or go on-line to

Stratford Festival, a season of being pushed to the edge

The  Stratford Festival of Canada, whose present artistic director is Antoni Cimolino, started on July 13, 1953, when Sir Alec Guiness walked onto a stage located in a large tent and spoke the first lines of what has become the internationally-recognized celebration of theatre.  Now housed in five theatres, offering plays and other entertainment from late April to November, Stratford is the largest repertoire theatre in North America. The offerings are not only the writings of Shakespeare, but a variety of classical and contemporary works, including musicals.

Having just returned from the Festival, I offer these capsule judgments of some of the shows on this year’s theatre’s schedule:

“Man of La Mancha”-- “Man of La Mancha” is an exceptionally well-conceived and performed production of one of the American musical theatre’s great scripts.  Short of having seen the original Broadway production (which was breathtakingly effective), a viewing of this staging is a wonderful second place and makes for an unforgettable theatrical experience!  Applause, applause, applause!

“Crazy For You”-- “Crazy For You” is a total delight.  Anyone who loves the fun and ridiculousness of an old time musical, complete with a marvelous George and Ira Gershwin score, will have a wonderful time attending this Stratford production.

“King John”-- “King John” is an impressive and compelling staging.  This is not one of Shakespeare’s blood and guts plays but grabs and holds the audience with language rather than action.  Since the script is not often done, this is an excellent opportunity to gain exposure by seeing a fine performance.
“King Lear”-- “King Lear” is a must see production.  Every aspect of the staging works.  This is a presentation that teaches the audience what superb theatre is all about.

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”-- “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is one of Shakespeare’s most delightful comedies.  Though the comic qualities were high, the Stratford production was filled with needless gimmicks and additions which added nothing to enhancing the basic script.  As evidenced by our B&B table discussion, audiences are going to either love or hate this production.   

For complete reviews of these shows go to:

Other shows on the Stratford schedule which I did not attend are:

“The Beux’ Stratagem” by George Farquhar
“Alice Through the Looking-Glass” by Lewis Carroll, adapted for the stage by     James Reaney
“Hay Fever’ by Noel Coward
“Mother Courage and Her Children” by Bertolt Brecht
“Anthony and Cleopatra” by William Shakespeare
“Christinea, The Girl King,” Michael Marc Bouchard
(For details about these scripts go to:

What’s the lodging like?  Hotels, motels and bed and breakfasts abound to fit any wallet.  I like  to stay at bed and breakfasts where you get to meet new people and share views on the productions and life in general.  My favorite is the well placed Avery House (, which is under the wonderful management  of John and Amanda who create breakfasts to satisfy the desires of the pickiest eater and present a variety of immaculate rooms to fit every taste. They also own Avery House Next Door, which offers lodging but no meals.

Hungry?  For moderate cost and high quality, try the excellent Stratford Thai Cuisine (82 Wellington Street).  My favorite is Rene’s (20 Wellington Street), a medium priced restaurant where the chef-owner holds sway in the kitchen and Margaret greets you at the door.  Based on a bad experience during our recent visit, in the future I will avoid The Keystone Alley Cafe.  I was served a raw chicken breast.  A request to the seemingly inexperienced waitress to tell the chef, received little attention.  No owner, manager or the chef appeared to respond to the serving of potentially dangerously prepared food.

Shopping?  The Touchmark Shop, 137 Ontario Street in downtown Stratford, is my wife’s favorite store.  Canadian fashions.  Canadian-nice salespeople! 

Stratford Escapes (, is an efficient way to make reservations.  For individual tickets call 800-567-1600 or go on-line to

BTW…Stratford’s printed programs contain excellent clarifying messages about the playwright or the play itself.  It’s worth getting to the theatre early to read the material. 

Helpful hint: The ride from Cleveland is about six hours through Buffalo.  To satisfy border requirements carry your passport.  Nothing else will do.

Go to Stratford!  Find out what lovely hosts Canadians are, and see some great theatre!

Roy Berko is a member of The American Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle and Dance Critics Association. He is a college professor and author of thirty-one books. His reviews and commentaries can be found on,, NEohioPAL, “The News Herald” and “The Morning Journal,” and on his popular blog, He was selected top Editor/Reviewer in the Midwest for 2013 by

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Rabbit Run’s “Brigadoon,” a nice summer theatre experience

The period of 1943, from the opening of the first book musical, “Oklahoma,” until 1968, the opening of the tribal rock musical, “Hair,” is commonly referred to as the Golden Age of the Modern American Musical.  Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein created such shows as “Carousel,” “The King and I,” “Flower Drum Song,” and “The Sound of Music.”  That duo was matched by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, who gave us the likes of “Camelot,” “My Fair Lady,” “Gigi,” and “Paint Your Wagon.”  Throw in “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Finian’s Rainbow,” “Music Man,” and “Guys and Dolls,” and you have a basic understanding of the foundation of our present musical theater.

Rogers and Hammerstein’s scripts featured the meaning of community and had strong social messages.  Their “South Pacific” is a cry for intercultural understanding and features the poignant, “You Have to Be Carefully Taught.” 

Lerner and Loewe centered their works on highlighting the perfect time, the perfect place and the perfect love story. “Brigadoon,” a staging of which is being presented at Rabbit Run Theatre, finds two present-day Americans lost in the Scottish highlands.  They stumble upon Brigadoon, a mystical 17th century village that only appears one day every hundred years.  The magic of the Highlands, the power of love, and the inescapable infinity of time create the perfect setting for a love story.

 “Waitin’ for my Dearie,” “The Heather on the Hill,” “Come to Me, Bend to Me,” “Almost Like Being in Love,” “There But for You Go I,” and “From This Day On,” form a memorable score.  The orchestrations are plush and the music pushes the well-conceived story along.

As with any good musical plot, there are complications and the required classic musical theatre device where the first act ends with a problematic incident, the solution to which is the hinge on which the rest of the story depends.  In “Brigadoon,” on-going existence is dependent upon no member of the community leaving.  If a resident departs, the spell which allows the place to exist, frozen in time and space, will be broken.  When a rejected love-struck young man attempts to flee, the first act ends with the question of whether he will succeed and Brigadoon will be no more.

Besides being a charming fantasy, as director R. Scott Posey states in the program, “’Brigadoon’ is a story of love and faith, and having the courage to risk everything to gain everything.”

It must be recognized that while Rabbit Run was founded and operated for many years as a professional summer theatre, where the likes of Jessica Tandy, Hume Cronin, Dustin Hoffman, Jim Backus and Sandy Dennis performed, it is now an amateur summer venue.  The cast of “Brigadoon” is mainly composed of high school and college students.  Teens play adults, so the MacLaren daughters are about the same chronological age as their father. 

What the audience is seeing is basically a high school/community theatre production.  And, for that level, the Rabbit Run production is quite good and enjoyable.

Adorable Paige Heidrich is wonderful.  She has a trained voice, sings meanings not just words, and creates a consistent and real person as Fiona.  Her duets with Brian Mueller (Tommy) were all well sung.

Tom Hill, one of the few adults in the cast, is a perfect curmudgeon as the teacher and historian, Mr. Lundie.   Handsome Lincoln Sandham has a nice singing voice and creates a believable Charlie Dalrymple, the young groom.  His “I’ll Go Home with Bonnie Jean” is delightful.  Hannah Green is charming as Jean, Charlie’s betrothed.

Brian Mueller (Tommy) has a fine singing voice, but is physically stiff and unnatural in his character development.  Though she displays enthusiasm, Katie Moorman misses out in developing the outlandishness of Meg.  The usually delightful “The Love of My Life” and “My Mother’s Weddin’ Day” lacked clarity of idea and understandability.

Rabbit Run has little backstage space, tiny wings and no fly gallery.  Tech Director Paul Gatzke must be a master of the jigsaw puzzle as he creatively designed set pieces that moved into every nook and cranny of space.  

Performing on a postage sized stage, with a huge cast, makes most of the dancing sequences seem like a Scottish flash mob, each person fighting for their own space on stage.  Less dancers would have solved this issue.

Karen Ziegler’s costume’s are excellent.  Where she got all the appropriate clan kilts and shawls is a question of wonder.

Director Possey needed to work with the cast on being more natural, listening to each other as they speak, and have the chorus not respond like puppets, with preplanned gestures, movements and facial expressions.  There was a general feeling of “fakeness” as the cast acted, rather than reacted.

Make sure you go out into the courtyard at intermission to listen to young Mickey O’Toole, bagpiper extraordinaire.

Capsule judgment:  Rabbit Run’s “Brigadoon” is a nice summer escape.  If audience members enter with no expectations for a professional production they will have a fine time appreciating several fine performances, while luxuriating in the music, score, story of one of the American musical’s finest scripts.

“Brigadoon” runs through August 2, 2014 at Rabbit Run Theatre at 5648 Chapel Road, Madison.  For tickets go to or call 440-428-7092.  For a special offer of dinner and theatre:  A specially selected three-course menu offering five entrees, an appetizer, dessert as well as a theater ticket make up this $55 a person package (tax and tip are additional).  Reservations for this package may be made by calling Bistro 70 at 440-352-7070.  Bistro 70 is located at 70 N. St. Clair St., Painesville, OH.

"One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" is a "must see" at Blank Canvas

It probably will come as shock to many to know that when the play, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” a script by Dale Wasserman, based on Kent Kesey’s novel of the same name, opened on Broadway in 1963, in spite of a cast that included Kirk Douglas, Gene Wilder, William Daniels, Ed Ames and Joan Tetzel, it was basically a flop, running only 82 performances. 

On the other hand, the 1975 film, directed by Milos Forman, which starred Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd, was a sensational hit.  It won five major Academy Awards including that for Best Picture, and Best Actor and Actress in leading roles.  It has gleaned over $109 million dollars on its $3 million investment, and is listed as #33 on the American Film Institute’s best 100 films list.

“Cuckoo’s Nest” is now being staged at Blank Canvas Theatre. 

The story centers on a fight-for-sanity conflict between Randle Patrick “Mac” McMurphy and Nurse Mildred Ratched.  Mac is in a mental institution as a device to avoid criminal prosecution for the statutory rape of a 15-year-old girl.  Ratched is an unmarried, obsessive compulsive, OCD head nurse of the ward into which Mac is placed.  She is a master at humiliation, unpleasant medical treatments, and controls the patients through manipulation and mind-numbing routines.  (Her name has become a common phrase, in present day culture, for describing an overbearing, unrelenting, domineering female.)

Mac is creative and undisciplined. Ratched is obsessive compulsive and defiant in dominating her fiefdom.  She controls not only her ward, but the hospital’s psychiatrist, clients and staff.  This is a set of personalities naturally rife for conflict.

Understanding the title opens a door to the underbelly of the script.  A line from a nursery rhyme which the play mimics, states, “one flies east, one flies west, and one flies over the cuckoo’s nest.”  The inmates are controlled by Nurse Ratched, especially Chief Bromden, a “mute” Indian, and guilt infused Billy.  McMurphy, on the other hand, refuses to give in to her, creating a battle of wills.  Mac’s actions cause both the Chief and Billie to “fly” east and west, while he winds up flying over the cuckoo’s nest. 

In the process of the play’s actions, the audience is exposed to psychological theory, electro shock therapy, emotional blackmail, mob psychology, and the consequences of ultimate and manipulative power.

The Blank Canvas production, under the astute direction of Artistic Director Pat Ciamacco, is compelling.  The cast is superlative.  Each grabs his character and lives the role.  There is no wavering or confusion of the psychological motivation behind each person’s path into psychopathology.  Each is believable as a person who is a victim of a society which has set unmanageable rules, or has personal family connections which has stimulated or compelled him to be a problematic outcast filled with angst, self-doubt and insecurities which manifest themselves into out-of-norm actions.

Highlight performances are rendered by Perren Hedderson as the mother-dominated, self-conscious, insecure, emotional-stuttering Billy.  He is matched by Daniel McElhaney, as the rebel-with-a-cause Randle P. McMurphy (Mac) who finds the rules of society too hard to push aside, even when they endanger him.  The highest recognition of the quality of her wisely understated role development as Nurse Ratched were the ”boos” given to Anne McEvoy in the opening night curtain call!

Other strong performances were given by inmates Aaron Patterson, John Polk, Len Lieber, Chris Ross, Michael N. Herzog, and Matthew Lenczewski.

Be aware that though Blank Canvas has two large air-conditioners, and at the start of the production the intimate acting space was cool, but due to natural body temperature and the heat of the lighting, the venue got warm by mid-first act.  It is not oppressive, not more than the outdoor summer performances at Porthouse, Cain Park or Rabbit Run, but be aware that some people did complain. 

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is one of America’s great plays.  The script gets an outstanding production at Blank Canvas. The cast is outstanding, the direction spot on, the pacing is excellent, the intimate venue lends itself to the audience being completely swept into the action.    It is a must see!

Blank Canvas’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest” runs though August 2 , 2014 in its west side theatre, 1305 West 78th Street, Suite 211, Cleveland.  Get directions to the theatre on the website.  (My GPS was of little help).  Once you arrive at the site, go around the first building to find the entrance and then follow the signs to the second floor acting space.  It’s an adventurous battle. For tickets and directions go to

Next up at Blank Canvas: “Hair,” the tribal rock musical, which bridged the age of traditional musical theatre to the modern era by putting the protest against the Vietnam War and the search for truth, peace and love on stage.  It features such musical classics as “Aquarius,” “Let the Sun Shine In,” and “Good Morning, Starshine.”  On stage August 29-September 13, 2014.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

"Arcadia," a well constructed play whichmakes for a long echoing sit at MAMAI

Czech born Thomas Stoppard is a Jewish British playwright who escaped from his birth country in 1939, just before the Nazi occupation.  Living, in England, he has gained a reputation as one of modern English language’s greatest playwrights.  The recipient of an Academy Award and four Tony Awards, it is generally agreed by theatre analysts that “Arcadia,” a production of which is now on stage at Mamai Theatre, is one of the western world’s greatest plays.

A staging won the 1995 Tony Award for Best Play and then the 2011 Tony for Best Revival of a Play. It is the only play ever to be nominated by the Royal Institution (of Britain) as “the best science book ever written.”

The 1993 written “Arcadia” explores linguistics, philosophy, literature, personality, human rights, censorship, political freedom, science, mathematics, physics, manners, and sexuality.  Thrown in along the way are discussions of sexual jealousy, landscape gardening, dueling, chaos theory, and the war between Classical and Romantic aesthetics.

The play’s unusual format jumps back and forth between present day and the early nineteenth century.  The actions of the earlier era form the subjects and discussions of the present day scenes.  As the play progresses, the past blends into the present to the degree that at the end of the play, the two have blended together.  In a creative bent, Stoppard has four dancers, two from the present and two from the past, perform to the strains of a single waltz melody as the final lights go out.

Interestingly, all of the scenes in “Arcadia” are played in the same acting space, a large room in Sidley Park, an English country house, with a table as the center of attention.  As the play progresses, items from both eras appear on the table.  A laptop computer accompanies a space with quill pens and ink wells.  An apple which is cut and eaten in 1809, is consumed in the “today” scenes.  Homework, notes, letters and books written and read in the nineteenth century, are used in the present.

The activities of two modern sibling scholars, a literature researcher (Chloe Coverly, and a mathematician (Valentine Coverly), juxtapose with the lives of their relatives, who lived in the manor years earlier.

We observe as Thomasina Coverly, the sixteen year old daughter of the manor, studies with her tutor, Septimus Hodge.  Her modern day cousin, Valentine, finds her work and is impressed by her creative ideas about mathematics and physics, well beyond her age and the knowledge findings of the day.

A visit by Lord Byron, who does not appear in person in the play, stimulates much of the conversation in both eras.  In the present, Hannah Jarvis, a writer, investigates a hermit who once lived on the grounds.  (Could it have been Bryon?)  Bernard Nightingale, a literature professor, is looking into the secret life of Byron.  What really happened?  As it turns out, only we, the observers know.

And, as all the modern day investigation takes place, gossip and actual events of the past unravel.  Another connecting link is a “living” tortoise who supposedly bridges the parts of the tale.  (Unfortunately, Mamai’s production uses a plastic tortoise, which leads to confusion and deflects this important reference.)

Stoppard’s language choices are intended to reflect the colloquialisms of early 19th century England and modern England.  Unfortunately, due to the terrible acoustics in the room, plus some poor vocal projection, and the lack of vocal stressing, this, like the tortoise’s  purpose, is lost.

The play ends with the blending of the times. This device brings Stoppard’s beliefs together that Romanticism and Classicism, intuition and logic, thought and feelings, can exist in the same time and space, and that order can be found amid chaos.

Mamai’s “Arcadia,” under the direction of Christine McBurney, though well acted and staged, is hampered by Pilgrim Churches presentation space.  The intimacy works well, but the high ceiling, hard wall surfaces, niches and crannies that allow sound to roam, creates mind-blurring echoes. This is a play that requires listening fidelity.  Every line must be heard to grasp the nuances. (The major topic at intermission was the lack of ability to hear many of the lines.)

Cute and pixy Meghan Grover, developed a Thomasina filled with teenage angst and unbridled enthusiasm.  She, like so many of the 1800 character’s, however, needed a Romantic era shading to her acting.

Handsome Jason Kaufman created a consistent characterization as Septimus, Thomasina’s tutor, but spoke so softly that most of his lines were lost.  This is a tricky performance space and Kaufman fell into the trap of not realizing that the intimacy did not translate into conversational projection.

Stuart Hoffman did use the Romantic era acting style of overdone shading, but since he was one of the few who did, his bulging eyes and over pronunciation made him look out of sync with the rest of the older-era cast.

The modern day cast members had an easier time in developing characters as they only needed to be realistic, sticking to modern acting style.  Scott Esposito’s Bernard was properly fey dusted, and Khaki Hermann, as his sister Chloe, was realistic in her character development.  Christopher Bohan was a little over-the-top, feigning characterization instead of realistically developing the insecure,  opinionated researcher, Bernard Nightingale.  (Is the character a buffoon, a caricature, nothing more than a device for laughter?)

Don McBride’s fragmented set and Benjamin Gantose’s lighting designs worked well.  Jenniver Sparano’s costumes were era correct and helped separate the time periods.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  “Arcadia” is one of the English language’s great plays.  Tom Stoppard’s language is poetic and poignant.  His use of dichotomies is impressive. This is a play worth seeing and Mamai should be praised for selecting and staging the script.  That said, the almost three hour sit became frustrating as many lines could not be heard, echoes exceeded clarity, acting styles weren’t always consistent to their era. The theatre desperately needs to find another venue.  It’s a shame that their quality work and the efforts of the cast are spoiled by the blurring of the dialogue, which is the basis for understanding the playwright’s brilliant efforts.

Mamaí’s “Arcadia” runs through August 3, 2014 at the Pilgrim Church, 2592 West 14th Street, Cleveland. For tickets go to:

Sunday, July 13, 2014

YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN should delight Beck audiences, but . . .

On a November Saturday afternoon in 2007, I anxiously entered the Hilton Theatre in New York.  I love exaggerated, well-conceived and performed farce.  I was going to see “Young Frankenstein” by the king of farce and parody, Mel Brooks.  Yes, “Young Frankenstein,” officially known as  “The New Mel Brooks Young Frankenstein,” was the Broadway follow-up to “The Producers,” by the comedy madman and his writing sidekick, Thomas Meehan. 

Brooks conceived the comedy routine, “The 2000 Year Old Man.” “Blazing Saddles” is one of my all time favorite movies.  Brooks is also responsible for such other zany offerings as “The Twelve Chairs,” “Silent Movie,” and “History of the World, Part I.”

“Young Frankenstein,” was going to be great!  Right?  Wrong! 

The musical, based on the 1974 film of the same name, followed Brooks’ pattern for “The Producers.”  He grabbed the film’s plot and best lines and modified them for the stage.  But this time he didn’t create the same power “shticks” and realistic ridiculousness, so the results were less than expected.

The reviews called the piece, “an overblown burlesque review,” “giggly smuttiness with throw-away music.” Other comments stated, “there’s more ho-hum than hummable music,” and, “you cannot escape the impression that everyone is working desperately hard to animate essentially weak material and the show fatally lacks that touch of the sublime that made ‘The Producers’ so special.”  Sadly, I agreed with them.

The public also agreed.  The Broadway production, in spite of the Brooks/Meehan combo, a cast which included Roger Bart, Megan Mullaly, Sutton Foster and Andrea Martin, a $16 million dollar budget, and direction and choreography by Susan Stroman, but ran only 484 performances.  (Compare that to the 2,502 performances for “The Producers,” or the $9 million spent on “The Book of Morman which has already run 1400 performances.)

“Young Frankenstein” is a parody of horror films, especially the blockbuster flicks based on Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” and “Son of Frankenstein.”  It takes place in Transylvania Heights in 1934.  At the start, the villagers are celebrating the death of Dr. Victor von Frankenstein, the mad scientist who has supposedly been experimenting in his castle with bringing dead bodies back to life. 

Hurrah, the mad scientist and his whole family are dead and the village no longer has to live in fear.  Well, not so fast!  Vic has a grandson, Frederick, the Dean of Anatomy at New York’s best university “Johns, Miriam and Anthony Hopkins School of Medicine.”  But, not to worry.  Ziggy, the village idiot, assures the townspeople that there is no way that Frederick is going to come to Transylvania. 

Of course, Ziggy, as is the case with village idiots, is wrong and Frederick, renamed “Fronkensteen” is forced to travel abroad to settle the claim on his inherited castle.  And so the potential fun begins.

Frederick needs to get away from his frigid fiancée, who refuses to allow him to touch her. (Obviously no hanky-panky is going to take place.)  There’s a meeting with Igor (the hunchbacked laboratory aid, whose hump keeps moving around his back), a romp in the hay wagon with Inga, (his well-endowed assistant), horses who neigh each time the name of the castle’s housekeeper, Frau Blucher, is spoken, the stealing of a dead body, the mishandling of a brain needed for the creation of the monster, a sex dalliance in mid-air, many reference to “boobs,” the creation of a large green monster in platform shoes, and lots of oft-hilarious (or, almost hilarious, or, kind of funny) situations).

Martin Céspedes’s creative choreography, which incorporates Borscht-belt vaudeville routines, tap dancing, a kick tap line, eastern European movements including the Chardosh, and the invention of the “Don’t Touch Me” style of movement, incorporates the right style of ridiculousness.

The depth of absurdity is not totally built into the script, so much of it has to be invented.  Director Scott Spence develops some of the ridiculousness, but he doesn’t dig deep enough to create the total needed abandonment.  In addition, though the cast puts out full effort, they simply don’t have the vaudeville backgrounds to create some of Brooks’s outrageousness.

Since, in general, the Beck audience members aren’t filled with the ethnic background needed to appreciate Brooks “mishegas,“ if the opening night audience is any indication, they won't know what they are missing.  ("Mishegas" is  ridiculousness beyond the ridiculous.  It’s Sid Caesar, Harvey Korman, Imogene Coca, Carol Burnett, Carl Reiner-ridiculousness.  It’s the Native Americans in “Blazing Saddles” speaking Yiddish rather than communicating in an Indian dialect.  If you don’t know Yiddish, you don't now how funny the scene is.

Amiee Collier , as Frau Blucher, comes the closest to understanding the level of Brooks’ farce.  Jamie Koeth has a nice touch with the reality of Frederick.  Leslie Andrews has some good moments as Inga.  Christopher Aldrich is physically right for The Monster and he does a nice job with “Putting on the Ritz,” but is neither scary enough at his “birth,” nor exaggerated enough, as he matures.  Alex Smith, as Igor, displays a fine touch with comedy, but needed to let loose more and enjoy himself.

Trad A Burns lighting design is well-conceived and properly spooky.  The lack of a fly gallery and wing space restricts scenic designers.  All things considered, Cameron Caley Michalak does an adequate job of making the scene changes non-obtrusive.  His answer to the need for a second level was not impressive and the concept of dropping things from the ceiling should have been deleted.  The setting is aided by some nice video designs by Ian Hinz. 

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  “Young Frankenstein” isn’t a well-written script and it has a weak musical score.  Is the production bad?  Not really. Martin Céspedes’s choreography added a creativity factor, and the second act on opening night was funnier than the first, hopefully indicating an increased comfort level by the cast and the ability to really let loose.   In spite of the negatives, audiences should have a fun time at Beck.
“Young Frankenstein” is scheduled to run through August 17, 2014 at Beck Center for the Arts.  For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or go online to  

Thursday, July 10, 2014

“Million Dollar Quartet” rocks the Ohio Theatre…."Great Balls of Fire!"

Part concert, part history lesson, and a lot of rock ‘n roll-- that’s “Million Dollar Quartet”, now on stage at the Ohio Theatre in PlayhouseSquare.

The second largest entertainment center in the United States is playing host to
Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash.  Well, in reality, four performers portraying those icons of rock and roll, in a stage show that attempts to duplicate the one time that the four actually did get together for an informal rock session.

In October of 2011, “Million Dollar Quartet” began it’s long running trip around the country here, where Presley and Lewis were among our Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame’s charter inductees, and were soon joined by Perkins and Cash. 

It’s December 4, 195.  Four emerging music icons, all of whom were good old Southern boys, identified and molded by Sam Phillips, were in his Memphis Sun Studios.  They ad-libbed an evening of gospel, blues and rock ‘n roll music.  The event was chronicled by a reporter from the “Memphis Press-Scimitar.”  The next day the article discussing the event stated, “This quartet could sell a million.”  Little did the reporter realize that though that number sounded like a lot, this quartet would go on to sell many, many millions, and become individual musical icons.

Whether the actions happened exactly as portrayed is not known, but the fact that there was such a jam session is a reality.  A recording of the session, and a picture of the four, documented the event and became the basis for the musical with a book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux. 

The touring production, under the direction of Eric Schaeffer, is basically on target.  The production is generally enveloping and filled with humor (mainly provided by John Countryman who portrays Jerry Lee Lewis) and a little drama.  And, of course, there is a “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.”

The stage literally explodes with hit after hit, including “Blue Suede Shoes,” “That’s All Right,” “Sixteen Tons,” and “I Walk the Line.”  Then, there was a curtain call which features the likes of “Hound Dog,” “Riders in the Sky,” and “See You Later Alligator.”

This is a hard show to cast.  The performers need to look like, sound like, and play musical instruments with perfection.  The original assemblage fulfilled these requirements.  This cast doesn’t quite do so. 

Tyler K. Hunter is much heftier than the Elvis we knew at the early stages of his career, and though he sounds a lot like the king, and has the hip swivels and the pelvis thrusts, he’s missing the famous heavy eye-lidded stare and Elvis’s sensual attitude.  The last line heard from the stage at the conclusion of the production was, “And Elvis has left the building.”  In actuality, Tyler K. Hunter left the building.

The crowd-pleasing John Countryman, though he doesn’t look anything like Jerry Lee Lewis, portrayed the undisciplined, uber-talented pianist and singer, with dynamism.  He is electric on stage, hardly able to contain the character’s twitching, jumping, ADHD persona.  

Dressed in Johnny Cash’s signature black uniform, Scott Moreau’s deep and mellow voice and handsome dark features, helps create a nice characterization.

The alcoholic and conflicted Carl Perkins, known as the King of Rock-a-billie, was on a rocket shot to fame until he was eclipsed by Presley, including having the Perkins-written “Blue Suede Shoes,” sung by the King on the Ed Sullivan show when Perkins became ill and couldn’t perform.  James Barry physically and vocally brings Perkins alive.

Vince Nappo gives a human portrayal of Sam Phillips, Stephanie Lynne Mason is fine as Presley’s girl friend of the moment.  Corey Kaiser is tantalizing as bass player, Jay Perkins, Carl’s brother.  He plays a mean bass!  David Sonneborn is great on the drums.

Capsule judgement: Though it doesn’t have the fidelity of the original staging of “Million Dollar Quartet”, if you are a rock and roll fan, you will enjoy the production now at the Ohio.  It is a  fun and enlightening evening of theatre filled with great music and some excellent performances.  Yes, “Memories Are Made of This!”

“Million Dollar Quartet” plays the Palace through July 27, 2014.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to

Friday, July 04, 2014

Sci-fi musical, STARMITES, should delight many at Porthouse

There was “Star Trek.”  Then “Star Wars.”  Then there were the werewolves and vampires.  Then “Hunger Games.” Now there is “Starmites.”

On the surface, “Starmites” is a farcical musical about Eleanor, a shy, awkward, teenage girl who escapes from the real world through an obsession with sci-fi comic books.   Her walls are covered with space age drawings.  Her bedspread and stuffed animals follow suit.  Much to the consternation of her mother, the bedroom is enveloped in comic books.  Something has to change!

Change comes when Eleanor becomes a participant in her fantasies and she gets involved in an intergalactic adventure in which she is carried off into a conflict between the evil Shak Graa and the Starmites, guardian angels of Innerspace. 

The “mites” believe that Eleanor is pre-ordained to save the universe. (What kind of fantasy would this be without a shy female who turns from nerd to heroine?)  Her task is to find a powerful musical instrument (which is also a ray gun) before it falls into the hands of Shak Graa.  (Ah, the intrigue builds.)   In their quest, the Starmites and Eleanor are joined by a lizard named Trinkulus who leads them into the Shriekwood forest.  (Be wary of the green lizard that appears from nowhere!)  Of course, in the process, Eleanor and Space Punk, the leader of the Starmites, fall in love.  (Don’t roll your eyes, this is a female tween fantasy and there has to be a love story.)

Of course there are a couple of plot twists, a challenge to the destruction of the lives of the young lovers, but in the end the shy one and her geeky boy friend win out.  (Would you expect anything else?)

If one were to analyze the goings on of this youthful, high-energy fantasy, they’d discover a theme of discovering self-confidence, building self-esteem, and how we discover the center of our strength. 

The script contains many spoofs on the sci-fi genre that might go right over the heads of adults and young children, but the tweens who I was watching in the audience seemed much more attuned to the references and the experiences of right versus wrong in an out of the world way, and “in” references to the on-going language and plight of the mid-young set. 

“Starmites,” with music and lyrics by Barry Keating and book by Stuart Ross and Keating, saw its first light in 1980 at the Off-Off-Broadway Ark Theatre.  It then moved Off-Broadway in 1987 and on to the Great White Way in 1989, where it ran for 60 performances.  It received six Tony Award nominations, including Best Musical.  (That must have been a weak Broadway season.  Yes, the winner was Jerome Robbins’ “Broadway” with the other nominee being “Black and Blue.”  The never heard from again, “Blue and Black”).  Even with that underwhelming  competition,  “Starmites” won no awards.

Keating’s music is mostly doo-wop, with a little gospel and ballad sounds thrown in.  The songs, none of which hit the top ten, include “Superhero Girl,” “Afraid of the Dark,” “Attack of the Banshees,” “The Dance of Spousal Arousal,” and “Imolation.”  (No, I did not conjure-up these title!) 

Interestingly, there are three different versions of “Starmites.”  A junior version is intended for grade and middle schools. “Starmites High School” is aimed at the upper school grades, and “Starmites Pro,” the version being produced at Porthouse, is intended for community theatre and professional-level productions.

Porthouse’s production, under the direction of Michael McIntosh, has some nice touches.  It also misses out on some of the intended fun.  There were just not enough Marx Brother’s moments.  The script is fantasy, high farce, ridiculous. The audience laughed in parts, where they should have been hysterical.  The pace was too languid. (Since I saw a preview performance it is hoped that once the cast gets used to playing before an audience, they  will let loose, have more fun, and play for the laughs and realize the ridiculousness of the script.  Hey guys and gals, this isn’t Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams.)

The music was fine, but needed to have some Spike Jones-like sounds to accent and underscore the ironic idiocy. 

The comic book set, props and costumes were okay, but, they, too, could have been more outlandish.  The choreography needed more verve, more gimmicks and less traditional “Broadway” moves.

There were some nice performances. 

Lucy Anders, as Eleanor, has a nice voice.  Her “Love Duet,” sung with the animated, comic and dance-talented, Daniel Lindenberger, (the most Broadway- ready of the student performers), was well performed.  Lindenberger and the Starmites’ (Elliott Lintherland, Dylan Ratell and Christopher Tuck) rendition of “Milady” was nicely sung but needed a little more dynamism.

Colleen Longshaw wailed in “Hard to Be Diva.”

“Reach Right Down” sung by The Starmites, Diva, Eleanor and the Banshees (Jessica Nicole Benson, Grace Falasco, Miriam Henkel-Moellmann and Mackenzie Duan) rocked the house.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: Artistic Director Terri Kent and the Porthouse staff, knowing their audiences, usually play it safe, producing the tried and true musicals (e.g., “My Fair Lady,” “Sound of Music.”)  Doing “Starmites” was a stretch.  It will be interesting to evaluate how the audiences respond and whether that encourages future stretching of the boundaries.  (I’d love to see them do “First Date” or “Bridges of Madison County,” recent Broadway shows.)  As for the production, I would have preferred that, as the powers that be had picked a ridiculous farce, that director Michael Macintosh, had pulled out all the stops and created a staging that was parallel to the bizarre sci-fi plot.

“Starmites” runs from July 19, 2014 at Porthouse Theatre, on the grounds of Blossom Music Center.

NEXT UP AT PORTHOUSE: “Oliver”” which runs July 24-August 10.  Curtain time is 8 PM Tuesdays through Saturdays and 2 PM Sundays. The picnic grounds at Porthouse open 90-minutes prior to curtain time. 

For tickets
 or 330-929-4416 or 330-672-3884